The Political-Economy of Roti: Urban Refugees in Cambodia and the Struggle for Economic Empowerment


By Mick Hirsch, formerly of Hagar international

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In a brief but important essay, Giorgio Agamben avers, “the refugee is the sole category in which it is possible today to perceive the forms and limits of a political community to come.”  The title of his essay, “We Refugees” is an iteration of a more famous essay from 1943 by Hannah Arendt.  Arendt was writing from experience:  her titular “we” avowedly includes herself among those European Jews who were forced to flee the Third Reich.  The reflexivity of Arendt’s “we” attempts to locate a people even within the chaotic thrown-ness (Geworfenheit) of forced displacement.  In the face of being delivered over to a world not chosen, Arendt executes a sociological maneuver that is patently conservative.  For, Arendt’s purpose here is to muster a concerted, albeit dis-located, response to Hitler at the height of his megalomaniac drive to eradicate the Jew.  Given the matrix of loss which defines the lived refugee experience – “We lost our home…We lost our occupation…We lost our language…We left our relatives…and our best friends…and that means the rupture of our private lives”

Arendt recognizes how easy it is to see in the refugee one whose individual and collective identity has been effaced:  “Our identity is changed so frequently that nobody can find out who we actually are.”  Yet, Arendt refuses to surrender to this; though an individual may falter – the passages in which she describes those who “answer” this identity crisis “with suicide” underscores the severity of their trauma – nevertheless, under such circumstances, to lose group identity is to grant Hitler, and by extrapolation the historical consciousness that privileges power over principle and law over the human, a win.  Such a win, of course, is unconscionable.

“History,” proclaims Arendt, “has forced the status of outlaws upon [the refugee].”  The most immediate connotation, the outlaw as criminal, hence, the criminal withdrawn all legal protections and so outside the law, the criminal who justifies persecution as one who denigrates the Law and so invites punishment even unto death – this outlaw is an identity the refugee cannot escape.  Indeed, those equal protections under law afforded to citizens of a nation-state no longer apply to the refugee – the fugitive (fugere) – who has crossed the border of her homeland so as to seek asylum in a host country.  Having lost her rights under law, all that remains would, in theory, be those inalienable human rights to which the Western tradition entitles all humanity.  Yet, elsewhere, later, in remembrance of a time past, Arendt writes in her book Imperialism, otherwise known as Part Two of the Origins of Totalitarianism, “the concept of the Rights of man, based on the supposed existence of a human being as such, collapsed in ruins as soon as those who professed it found themselves for the first time before men who had truly lost every other specific quality and connection except for the mere fact of being humans.”  The human reduced to bare life, the refugee as outlaw.

Arendt, however, turns this status of outlaw on its head and instead proclaims, “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples…”  Shirking the image of the forbidden and damned, the refugee emerges the forerunner of her people, the innovator of a new law – a new law, which overturns the old, false law, the law that traduced the Law, the law from which she had been banned but now willfully distances herself in order to originate again.  Yet, Arendt’s vision shall we say, her prototype for she who represents the vanguard of her people, for she who will inaugurate as Agamben says, a “paradigm for a new historical consciousness,” her position as leader and creator – all this is conditional:  “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity [my italics].”

Refugees, far from existing outside the law, carry the law with(in) them.  On condition of identity, she who is thrown into a world not her making, can however (re-)make herself a world, enacting through her movement across the borderland of impossibility, a foundational law, a law to come, a law of universal and unconditional hospitality, a lex refugium.  This active life (vita activa), enacting law in flight, paves the way for a new historical consciousness, according to which the law of the father, the law of the German Lebensraum, is supplanted by a true commonwealth, the metropolis, cities of refuge, not in the sense of the cities of refuge found in either the biblical Priestly or Deuteronomic Codes, but rather something more akin to the cities of refuge championed by Jacques Derrida and others of the International Parliament of Writers, “a non-utopian utopia,” now taken up by ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, and yet here more broadly conceived:  in short, cities of refuge according to the lex refugium.  It is because the refugee exists outside the law of the patria that she is free to express the creative possibility of renaissance.  Rebirth, to be sure, does not eliminate the identity which bears it.  Rather, it is a self-sustaining rebirth into self-reliance.

To be sure, self-reliance rightly understood is not without jouissance.  By self-reliance we affirm a distinctive enjoyment of life’s basic freedoms in full partnership with the other – the other among whom and with whom the subject enjoys full inclusivity and self-determination.  This jouissance goes beyond the pleasure principle of contemporary Western, neoliberal political economy.  Self-reliance has nothing to do with values of rugged individualism and the invisible hand-clapping espoused by today’s free market conservatives.  Self-reliance is rather rebirth into the identity of one’s generation, historically, culturally and ethnically rooted but organic and ever-changing in a non-linear, slippery social context.

The host country in which the refugee disembarks does not provide this social context.  Rather, the law of the polis finds its tabernacle in the refugee.  Arendt’s observation that the refugee is outlaw thus signals not only a great transformation in human potential but also intensifies the crisis of security and uncertainty that marks the refugee’s lived reality as resident aliens at the same time underscoring the potential of refugees to live outside the law, not as renegades and criminals on account of the fact that they bear the law within.  It is from this place where the human potential is made manifest in the refugee’s capacity to generate a new beginning out of an inveterate though fragmented individual and collective identity, a place where the excluded and persecuted are resurrected from being victims of circumstance into the makers of their own history – nay, into the makers of history – that Agamben attaches a sort of postscript some 50 years later.

Identifying the figure of refugee as herald of “a political community to come,” Agamben adopts Arendt’s essay title and, notably, therefore also assumes a refugee identity both for himself and for his readers.  Unlike Arendt, however, who was herself living as a stateless person in the United States on an illegal Visa, writing to an audience/community of primarily fellow Jewish “refugees” in forced diaspora (her essay was originally published in The Menorah Journal), Agamben is not a refugee in any technical, legal sense, nor, presumably, are the vast majority of his contemporary readers.

Nevertheless, Agamben performs a remarkable maneuver to once again turn the concept “refugee” on its head.  At the outset of her essay, Arendt can state in the first person, “With us the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ has changed.”  Similarly, Agamben, following Tomas Hammar, identifies a change in the modern nation-state, namely, “that the concept citizen is no longer adequate to describe the sociopolitical reality of modern states.” The argument is in keeping with one of the projects for which Agamben is best recognized, namely the challenge to the sovereignty of the modern nation-state via an analysis of the so-called ‘state of exception.’ Accordingly, Agamben argues, “by breaking up the identity between man and citizen, between nativity and nationality, the refugee throws into crisis the original fiction of sovereignty.” The fictive undergirding of sovereignty and the citizenship that defines the nation-state exposes the precariousness of our most basic assumptions about sociopolitical reality. The ground upon which our political life is founded has fallen away, leaving us all, effectively, refugees. Once again, the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ has changed.

Agamben’s inquiry into the biopolitical famously expands the work of thinkers like Michel Foucault  in its exploaration among other things of the role (and rule) of law.  One avenue down which Agamben’s oeuvre does not typically proceed, but which happens to be the very topography we shall work to unconceal in this essay, is that of the socio-economic landscape of the modern, globalized world, a landscape which has rapidly taken a decidedly urban turn and which, largely on account of human migration, fluctuates constantly with the ingress and egress of economic actors.  In the city, we shall encounter a lived human experience where the citizen – as the resident-inhabitant of a metropolis, whether ‘documented’ or not – is faced with an economic reality in which her rights, identity and survival are constantly challenged.  In the modern city, the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ will change again…and again.

The Political-Economy of Roti

 In the 21st-century, a dramatic movement of people is underway with tectonic implications for the world’s geographic distribution of peoples.  International migration and internal mobility within sovereign territories have created a massive reshuffling of global demographics as migrants, seeking financial gain, access to education and personal security move typically from poorer peripheries to richer urban agglomerations. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division reports that in 2013, the number of international migrants worldwide reached an all-time high of 232 million, up from 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990.  Although refugees – forcibly displaced persons, owing to a “well-founded fear of persecution” – account for a relatively small proportion of the global migrant stock, their number has been rapidly increasing since the eruption of conflicts in this second decade of the 21st-century.  Likewise, an upsurge in the numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) worldwide – individuals forced from their homes, but who have  not crossed an international border – has contributed to complex intersections of migrant peoples.  Like asylum seekers and refugees, most IDPs seek out urban centers to redeem the city’s promise of economic opportunity.

Though the motivations for targeting large metropolises often overlap, the underlying causes for heading toward the city, especially for those embarking on cross-border movement, reveal significant differences. Moreover, the lived experience of refugees once arriving in their host environment carries difficulties that are unique to this population. This paper will examine the experience of urban refugees by surveying several of the most common challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers living in Cambodia in their efforts to achieve self-reliance and integration into Cambodian society, particularly with regards to their pursuit of economic empowerment. Although by no means host to a large population of refugees, the 150 or so men, women and children who comprise Cambodia’s foreign-born refugee community illustrate the challenges faced by today’s urban refugees in most any developing urban context. More than anything else, the socioeconomic reality of Cambodia’s urban refugees is made manifest in the political-economy of roti.

An analysis of urban refugees in Cambodia has secondary benefits:  from such an analysis, we can learn not only about the political-economic reality of urban refugees, but of Cambodia’s urban centers, as well.  But what can 150 foreigners tell us about the political-economy of Cambodia that we do not already know?  They can tell us about the challenges of navigating the informal labor sector, weathering the instability of unpredictable local markets, standing up to rampant corruption and harassment, and facing the ever-diminishing hope of breaking into a higher quality of life.  They can tell us about the tenuous line between risk and survival, and about how strategies for success too often slip into quagmires of servitude. They can tell us about the challenges of imagined communities, the possibilities of transforming societies, and the realities of dissolving social ties, highlighting how the schizophrenic dealings of capitalist exchange ensnarl all actors in one traitorous, borderline love affair.  They can tell us about global-local interconnections, the complex macro- and micro-interrelationships which not only serve as a sort of litmus test for impending ASEAN partnerships but also articulate the diversity of lived experiences and identities characteristic of the regional context.  And they can tell us about work as a fundamental human right, that human doing, human activity, is essential for happiness, peace and security.  For at the end of the day, self-reliance is less about money in the bank as it is about one’s personal, unwavering knowledge that one is capable of acting in such a way as to engender happiness, even in the face of adversity.

Beyond either a phenomenology of roti or a qualitative inquiry into the present state of political-economy in Cambodia, this paper will raise several theoretical questions pertaining to contemporary social thought.  Differences of identity, culture, ethnicity, religion and politics generate situations that are as open to creative possibility and the sharing of a common human world, as they may likewise contribute to tension, rejection, ostracism, xenophobia and further persecution within communities of mixed communities.  This paper reflects favorably on the creative, economic possibility of roti as a truly social enterprise.  In doing so, we shall draw upon Agamben’s redefinition of the citizen as refugee, recapitulating this philosophical maneuver in vita activa.  Accordingly, we shall examine the potential for economic empowerment of the urban refugee in terms of Hannah Arendt’s notion of natality set forth in her seminal text, The Human Condition.  The refugee’s natural inclination for survival favors what Arendt calls “the capacity of beginning something new, that is, of acting.” The political-economy of this kind of acting has potential positive implications for both refugees and their host society.  The political economy of roti is decidedly mutual, reciprocal and cooperative.

Invisibility Clause

In a discussion of “the postcolonial or migrant subject,” Homi Bhabha issues “the challenge to see what is invisible.” Indeed, the urban refugee has been characterized – and, indubitably chastised – for her invisibility:  as late as 1997 in their “Comprehensive Policies on Urban Refugees,” the official policy of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) was to curb protection services for urban refugees – the derogatory term they used at the time was “irregular movers” – funneling stragglers back into camps.  This policy amounted to no less than an organization-wide denial of the phenomenon of urban refugee migration.  What the UNHCR failed to see was that so-called “irregular” movement was in fact quite regular, the norm in fact, insofar as millions of people were doing it. Come 2009, when the UNHCR finally accepted urban refugees as a global reality – by this time, over half of the world’s refugees were living in urban, rather than camp-based settings – the agency continued to lay blame on urban refugees for perpetuating a game of hide-and-seek. The UNHCR’s official press release read, “The ‘invisibility’ of this population hampers UNHCR in its efforts to protect them – and to build an accurate picture of the refugee population.” The UNHCR also failed to accept any recognition of the agency’s own complicity in rendering urban refugees invisible.  Granted, many persecuted persons relish the city for its natural camouflaging – the city offers far more hiding places than a camp or rural village.  Yet, invisibility is also a social construct:  we humans can render invisible that which we do not wish to see.  Furthermore, as good schoolchildren learn, the most successful games of hide-and-seek depend not only on the skill of those who hide, but on the cleverness and indefatigable pursuit of those who seek out.

It is important to recall that the figure of the refugee as such had always been exceedingly visible.  The iconic image of one who treks long distances through deserts, jungles and warzones to cross a somehow miraculously safe though, assuredly, arbitrary border en masse, only to be concentrated into tent cities like Dadaab, Mae La or Zaatari, suggests a human subject all too visible.  From Margaret Bourke-White’s seminal photo-documentation of the mass migration of refugees from India to Pakistan in 1947 to Greg Constantine’s more recent project, “Nowhere People,” refugee movement and suffering has been chronicled through indelibly haunting images.

Imaging (and imagining) the refugee has been taken to extremes. In 2008, in what can only be described as a momentary lapse of reason, the UNHCR announced a partnership with Google to utilize the software giant’s globe-mapping software, Google Earth, to track the migration patterns of refugees.  As the UNHCR’s website states, “Sit in front of your computer and, with a few clicks, see, hear and develop an emotional understanding of what it is like to be a refugee.” The Zaatari refugee on Google Earth:  the 21st-century’s version of the classic Atari video game, “Space Invaders,” only this time the space our nemesis is invading is Northern Jordan, and today’s aliens arrive not as little green monsters but in the form of Syrian refugees.  One thing for certain:  the camp-based refugee is prized for her photogenic qualities; the fact that she can be captured en route to her destination invites a photo-narrative relationship that can span years and cross-cultural sensitivities and sensibilities.  The hyper-visibility of the camp refugee contrasts significantly with that of the urban refugee; relegated to the shadows of uncharted slums, today’s urban refugees are as invisible on the internet as they are to civil society.

According to the latest statistics proffered by the UNHCR, of the 45.2 million displaced people throughout the world, 15.4 million are refugees.  It is important to note, however, that these numbers are from year-end 2012, and so do not include all of the nearly 2.5 million refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic, let alone the new waves of refugees created by recent flare-ups in South Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic and Iraq.  Nevertheless, in 2012 the world saw an average of 23,000 individuals per day forced to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either as IDPs or as asylum seekers.  These numbers have only increased throughout calendar year 2013 and continue to increase on a daily basis at the beginning of 2014.  The truth is undeniable:  the world is in the midst of a crisis of forced displacement and migration unknown to modernity.

This preliminary information about the magnitude of forced displacement in our time – we must continue to remember that forced migrants number in addition to the hundreds of millions of economic migrants ambling from place to place both within and without a nation’s borders –begs the question:  where do all these people go?  The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified that more than half of the top 20 so-called “migration corridors” are accounted for by people migrating from South to South.  Furthermore, the UNHCR reports that at the end of 2012 developing countries hosted 8.5 million of the global refugee population; the Asia and Pacific region hosted about one-third of the world’s refugees; the 49 least developed countries, including Cambodia, provided asylum to 2.5 million.

A Tale of Two Thousand Cities

Again, one thing is for certain:  the crisis of forced displacement and migration has disproportionately affected urban areas.  Although it was not until 2009 in the “Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas” that the UNHCR formally recognized the urban character of the global refugee population, such awareness is all but surprising given the speed at which urban centers have been growing since the Industrial Revolution.  At the end of 2012, some 53% of refugees were said to live in urban areas as opposed to camps, prompting journalist Norman Green to dub 2012 “the year of the urban refugee.” Although refugees seek urban centers for the perceived benefits of anonymity, more developed infrastructure (such as hospitals, schools, transportation and housing), and nominally lucrative economic opportunities, urban living is not without its challenges.  On the occasion of the 2009 Policy, the UNCHR published the following statement:

Refugees in cities will typically live alongside nationals and migrants who have migrated to urban areas in pursuit of higher living standards.  These different groups all contend with difficult day-to-day circumstances in communities that will lack even the most basic welfare support.  More pressure on infrastructure and environment, on housing and social services in communities already struggling can create tensions between local and refugee populations – and in worse cases, can fuel xenophobia with catastrophic results.

Indeed, it is difficult to dispute the general assumptions offered here by the UNHCR.  Certainly, an influx of inhabitants in any one area will contribute to a strain on resources and increase competition for already limited economic advantages.  Classes of insiders and outsiders will emerge based on criteria as concrete as citizenship and as arbitrary as skin color or accent.  At least one additional reality has surfaced that was un(der)-acknowledged in UNHCR’s initial assumptions governing urban refugees:  all urban refugees – regardless of age, gender, sexuality, ability or disability, health condition, or education – all are necessarily economic actors.  In order to survive as resident outsiders, urban refugees demonstrate courage and determination in pursuit of employment.  While this added competition is certain to cause dismay among some citizens, the political economy of urban refugees suggests that refugees are often necessary, as well as potentially advantageous economic actors.

Cambodia’s Urban Refugees

In the case of Cambodia, the term “urban refugee” properly refers not only to individuals who dwell in a bona fide metropolis like Phnom Penh, but to any legal refugees – those who have passed an official Refugee Status Determination (RSD) – living anywhere inside the country. In the absence of refugee camps within the Kingdom, all legal refugees have full freedom of movement within Cambodia’s borders.  Urban refugees are self-settled, meaning they themselves select and finance where they will dwell in the host country.  The fact remains that most refugees live in the capitol city of Phnom Penh, although the perimeter of the city continues to expand wider and wider on account of rapid development.  Virtually no refugees live in the city center due to prohibitive rental costs in the business and financial hub.  Consequently, most refugees in Phnom Penh live on the fringe of the city, some in construction sites along National Highway 3, others in stilted houses along the Mekong or Tonle Sap Rivers.  Several refugees now live outside of Phnom Penh in one of several other urban centers in the country, such as Sihanoukville and Siem Reap.  One family, whose patriarch is employed by a logging company, lives in a remote mountainous region in a far Western province.

Considering its modest size, Cambodia’s refugee population is a diverse cross-section of displaced peoples worldwide.  Cambodia’s refugees come from such places as Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria, Palestine, China and Iran.  Recently, the greatest influx of refugees has been stateless Rohingya from Myanmar.  Few of these individuals deliberately chose Cambodia as a place of refuge, aside from, perhaps, some from Vietnam, whose proximal location makes it a somewhat convenient destination.  Most, in fact, had attempted to settle elsewhere in the region,  in such places as Thailand, Malaysia or even Bangladesh.  Because these countries are not signatories to the primary international instrument which protects refugees – the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – and because they also do not have hospitable domestic asylum legislation, refugees report having encountered harsh circumstances, including harassment, detention, imprisonment and torture in these countries.  Several refugees arrived in Cambodia by accident, whereby circumstances beyond their control landed them ashore.  One refugee from Africa reports disembarking from a fishing boat without knowing his precise location; once stepping foot on Cambodian soil, he was stuck in an international legal quagmire.  Twelve years later, he remains in a country that is socially and culturally alien.  The refugee population ranges in age from 0 to 70, with men outnumbering women 3 to 1.

The fact that Cambodia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention means that in principle, Cambodia is a safe and hospitable host to asylum seekers.  Regionally, only three countries – Cambodia, the Philippines, and Timor Leste – are signatories of the 1951 Convention.  In essence, the provisions of this legislation guarantee that individuals will be offered temporary asylum while they await their RSD; they will not be detained in a prison or holding center; and they will be safe from refoulement.

It must be stressed, however, that the rule of law in Cambodia is hardly robust, a fact that results in daily violations of both legislative principle and practice.  Cambodia commits halfheartedly to many international conventions to which it is a signatory.  During the infamous UNTAC period following Cambodia’s civil war, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia took unprecedented measures to stabilize and reconstruct the war-torn state following a period of unbridled destruction, encouraging Cambodia’s ratification of international laws in the hope of ushering the kingdom into the modern world.  Insiders openly admit that Cambodia was strong-armed into signing, among other things, the 1951 Convention.

For certain, Cambodia has made several positive steps towards fulfilling its international obligations under the 1951 Convention. Nevertheless, there have been moments when Cambodia has not made good on its promises.  The most notorious breach of refugee law occurred just days after the government signed into law Sub-Decree 224, effectively transferring RSD power from the UNHCR to the newly created Refugee Office under the Ministry of Interior.  In December 2010, Cambodian police stormed a house where 20 Chinese Uighurs were housed.  These men, women and children were seeking asylum, based largely on the grounds of religious persecution for their Muslim faith.  All 20 individuals were forcefully returned to their country of origin in a blatant violation of the principle of refoulement. Since December 2010, other incidences of refoulement of additional Chinese Uighurs and Vietnamese Montagnards have been documented and condemned.

Economic Empowerment

We shall turn our attention to the challenges of economic empowerment which Cambodia’s urban refugee population faces.  By economic empowerment, we mean the ability for an individual or family unit to generate sufficient income on a monthly basis so as to cover not only immediate expenses, but to save a portion of net profit for future need. Economic empowerment is, therefore, not simply about satisfying immediate needs, but preparing for the future.  An economically empowered individual manifests resilience in the face of adversity (such as illness or accident) and is able to make well-considered improvements to enhance one’s quality of life (such as through asset acquisition:  e.g., purchasing a motorbike or automobile, sending a child for higher education, or renting a larger and safer apartment).  Economic empowerment is, therefore, closely tied to a concept of self-reliance, although self-reliance is a broader category, which implies an individual’s ability to navigate a comprehensive social terrain.  Self-reliance includes such things as procuring necessary documentation (e.g., a motor vehicle registration), seeking medical attention, enrolling young children in public school, filling out forms in the local language, renting an apartment – all such activities done on one’s own or with minimal support from others.  In short, self-reliance is an individual’s ability to utilize her available resources to act independently and integrate successfully into society. In our neoliberal, globalized world, economic stability is seen by most to be the chief barometer of an individual’s successful integration into society.

Due to its status as a signatory of the 1951 Convention, as well as to the fact that Cambodia has its own domestic refugee law administered by the Refugee Office, the UNHCR maintains that Cambodia has the necessary legal framework to provide sufficient protection to those individuals seeking asylum within its borders.  Accordingly, the durable solution for most all refugees who come to Cambodia is integration into Cambodian society. Few refugees in Cambodia will be resettled in third countries, like the United States or Canada.  Desired or not, Cambodia is intended to be a refugee’s new permanent home, at least until it is deemed safe enough to repatriate to their country of origin.

It is important to stress that refugees are not economic migrants.  Admittedly, it can be difficult for the general public to separate categorically refugees from other migrants who embark upon a journey across borders for economic or other reasons.  The crucial difference between these groups is motivation:  the primary catalyst for a refugee to leave her homeland is persecution; hence, the primary motivation for arriving at any given destination point is safety.  Refugees leave not by choice, but under duress.  They are forced to flee.  If they wait another day, they may not survive.  Unlike economic migrants, who make a calculated decision to depart for what is perceived to be a place of improved opportunity, the refugee escapes to anywhere she will feel safe.

Safety, to be sure, requires a measure of financial stability.  Accordingly, we maintain that the right to work is a fundamental human right, a right that is, in fact, consistent with the 1951 Convention, ascribed in Articles 17-19 and 24.  Accordingly, refugees have the right to contracted, wage-earning employment, self-employment and employment in more formal, “liberal” professions for those refugees who hold diplomas.  Under international law, refugees shall be accorded “the same treatment as is accorded to nationals” in respect to remuneration, hours of work, overtime arrangements, holidays with pay, minimum age of employment, and “enjoyment of the benefits of collective bargaining.” Although international legislation does not provide for asylum seekers in the same way as refugees, the Refugee Office of the Cambodian Government has made verbal assurance that asylum seekers in Cambodia will similarly be granted the right to work as they await the determination of their refugee status interview.

These safeguards pertaining to the right to work are considerable.  Coupled with the fact that refugees and asylum seekers in Cambodia have free range of movement within the country, the right to housing, access to public education for children and receive health insurance through UNHCR, the de jure rights of refugees establish a rather auspicious landscape in which a refugee may operate.

Nevertheless, there are considerable challenges to economic empowerment in Cambodia, challenges which condemn most refugees to a life of poverty and hardship.  Until recently, a percentage of refugees were recipients of UNHCR’s Monthly Financial Assistance (MFA) scheme, whereby individuals and families would receive cash payments based on several criteria, including age, severe medical condition and number of children.  MFA created a system, if not a subculture, of dependence:  despite the fact that MFA amounted to a mere subsistence payment, recipients often had no incentive to seek any additional forms of income generation.  Some refugees had received MFA for over ten years, having never held a job or operated a small business since arriving in Cambodia.  MFA was a UNHCR-imposed barrier to UNHCR’s own prescription of self-reliance as the durable solution for refugees in Cambodia.  To phase out MFA was not as simple as slashing payments; it required a cognitive shift, the reactivation of latent skills and energies, and provisions for active case management to safeguard against relapsing into further destitution and indigence.  We shall now examine several additional stumbling blocks that impede refugees’ ability to thrive economically in Cambodia.

Money, Money Everywhere, but Not a Dime for Me

In response to UNHCR’s insistence on durable solutions, Taya Hunt, formerly of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, retorted with the rhetorical question, “Are refugees able to become self-sufficient in Cambodia?” [my italics] Until now, a sufficient reply to this challenge has been left wanting.

In Cambodia, the figure of refugee as economic actor can be divided into seven categories:

  1. Unskilled economic actors requiring vocational training.  Although it remains a common misconception that all refugees are poor and uneducated, the reality is otherwise.  In fact, the global refugee population is comprised of individuals of all socioeconomic classes, possessing a full range of educational and technical skills.  Still, many refugees comprise historically educationally disadvantaged and marginalized communities.  Women and girls, in particular, often arrive in a host country with particular vulnerability surrounding their educational history and technical experience.  It is not uncommon for refugees to have formerly worked as farmers prior to their forced displacement at which the city scoffs.

Ideally, many of these unskilled economic actors would be eligible for vocational training or re-training programs.  With some 3,000 NGOs registered in Cambodia, refugees arrive in what may seem like the world capitol of charitable outreach and development.  Yet, the reality is that the demographics of Cambodia’s refugee population are unfavorable for taking advantage of these manifold opportunities.  At the end of 2013, only two refugees in Cambodia were between the ages of 17 and 30, the target age for virtually all vocational training programs.  Additionally, two-thirds of the refugee population is male; most NGO-sponsored vocational training programs currently have a disproportionate emphasis on serving young women over young men.  Trainings and materials are almost all in Khmer language, making participation difficult for non-native speakers and the illiterate.  Many training programs have a very specific mandate to serve Cambodian citizens who have been sexually exploited or are survivors of sex trafficking.  Time and again, refugees find themselves disqualified from desperately needed services.

Ibrahim [Note: all names have been altered and composites have been created of individual cases] a 35-year-old Rohingya man who has been in Cambodia for four years, wants to work in a restaurant or hotel to ride the wave of Cambodia’s booming hospitality industry.  He speaks some English and wants to capitalize on this ability. Discouraged because he is unable to find a vocational training program to support him in learning a new skill and to help him “get a foot in the door,” he resigns himself to pushing a roti cart, selling cheap snacks to school-children.  He laments, “nobody wants to help someone like me; they say I’m too old to learn a new skill; I am not too old, but in Cambodia, there are no opportunities.”  Similarly, Phuong Tran, a 57-year-old Vietnamese woman, yields to a life of struggle.  In the past, her husband was the principle breadwinner for the family; now that he is disabled, she knows she has to work, but she has no marketable skills and no Khmer language acquisition.  Although she wants both to learn and to work, she has failed to find an appropriate training placement despite almost two years of active searching:  fighting back her tears she exclaims, “I am a hard worker, but that’s all I have.  How can I survive?”

  1. Skilled laborers who cannot make use of their unique skill in the current context, and so require re-training. Aung Min, a 41-year-old Burmese refugee is an electrician by trade.  Despite his highly valued skills set, he is unable to secure a job in Cambodia. He is well-aware of his right to work under both the 1951 Convention, as well as Sub-Decree 224, Article 16 of Cambodia’s domestic legislation on refugees.  Nevertheless, Aung has been unable to convince an employer to hire him:  “Although I found a job for which I am qualified, the employer said ‘No!’ because he did not want to hire a foreigner.”  Despite 20 years’ experience as an electrician, this man cannot find employment in his trade and so is forced to earn money through a much less lucrative and unstable means, namely, selling roti.

An additional stumbling block for some refugees is that most potential employees embarking upon their first job placement in Cambodia – individuals further encumbered by limited documentation and lack of references – are considered exclusively for entry-level positions.  In Cambodia, entry-level positions, including those which require a technical skill, often pay a paltry wage, as low as $100 – $200 USD per month.  For six to seven days of work per week at up to 12 hours per day, this is not acceptable compensation.  Once again, the roti cart beckons.

The pre-employment stage also poses a significant challenge to many refugees:  simply finding available jobs, inquiring about roles and responsibilities, filling out an application in a foreign language, and interviewing in an unfamiliar cultural context are often insurmountable barriers to quality employment. Aman, a 33-year-old Rohingya asylum seeker, complains that although he has learned to speak some Khmer language, he cannot read; thus, searching for jobs in local newspapers or posted advertisements is frustrating.  Also, Aman finds the cost of internet cafes prohibitive, so he cannot search for jobs using Cambodia’s online job banks.  “How am I supposed to find a job?  I go place to place, asking for work, but once they see my dark skin, they all turn their head.” In the context of Cambodia, where refugee communities are scattered and small, one cannot even rely on word of mouth or other forms of networking for referrals to potential employers. Aman has borrowed money from a local refugee support agency in order to start yet one more of Phnom Penh’s many refugee-operated roti cart businesses.

This second category of economic actors includes individuals from the so-called liberal professions: doctors, nurses, lawyers, journalists, accountants, engineers, professors, etc.  These are actors who typically have high education, credible work experience and the expectation to earn a salary consistent with at least a middle-class lifestyle.  These are not people who would be content with “just any job,” let alone working in any of the dilapidated garment factories scattered along Highway 4 on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  Gabyere, a former professor of Business Administration from Somalia, refused to seek employment for himself or any one of his family members in anything but a well-established business or university.  Because such jobs simply did not avail themselves, he was forced to make the decision either to remain in Cambodia at the risk of destitution or attempt a perilous, unauthorized journey elsewhere:  “We cannot live here.  What am I supposed to do?  I am a professor, not a seamstress. What is my daughter to do?  I want her to go to university, not wait tables.”

  1. Economic actors with basic, general abilities, who require job placement.  Once again, despite protections under both international and domestic law, it proves difficult to find employers willing to take on refugee staff.  Even when the law is explained, employers feel anxiety about employing refugees.  Refugees experience this rejection as a form of discrimination.

The anxiety works both ways:  Ha Nguyen was placed by a refugee aid organization in a partner NGO garment factory.  This particular factory was reputed for its equitable treatment of employees, safe and humane working conditions, above-standard pay and on-the-job professional development.  Nevertheless, after only three months of work, the employee abruptly quit her job without informing her case manager. She claimed that she felt the employer discriminated against her because of her Vietnamese heritage: “Why do they pay me $95 USD and my Cambodian friend $100?”  What she failed to take into account, though, is the fact that she missed three days of work that month.  At the time of writing, Ha Nguyen remains unemployed going on nine months.

  1. Economic actors who are employable, but with limitations.  Limitations include language deficiency in the local vernacular, health restrictions (including mild disability), age, lack of or inability to acquire necessary documentation (such as a valid driver’s license), transportation impediments to and from work (including prohibitive cost of fuel and lack of affordable public transportation), absence of childcare, and cultural or religious prohibitions.

Individuals like Vikram, a 53-year-old Sri Lankan man who is HIV positive, are often unable to find a suitable endeavor that contributes both to quality of life and physical capacity. Although he is on antiretroviral medication, he is not strong enough to work the long hours and full work-weeks demanded by most Cambodian employers. For over 10 years, he has been unemployed, a recipient of the UNHCR’s MFA program.  He explains, “I want to work, but some days I just don’t have the energy.  I cannot find an employer who understands my situation.”

Under this fourth category of economic actors, an entire group of people struggles to find suitable economic empowerment:  Muslim, Rohingya women.  Due to cultural and religious practices, these women are strictly restricted to their homes except to go to and from the local market to purchase daily foods.  Although none of the Rohingya women living in Cambodia are over the age of 40, all but one are in good health and several have sewing skills, none of them are able to seek a wage-earning job.  Zubaida, a 38-year-old Rohingya woman, complains, “Even if I sew a beautiful headscarf, how am I supposed to sell it?”  Constrained to her apartment, she idles away the time unemployed and unable to use her natural talents for designing clothing.

  1. Fully disabled breadwinners.  As previously stated, in Cambodia, all urban refugees are considered potential, necessary economic actors.  Sadly, this includes fully disabled breadwinners.  Binh is a 59-year-old Vietnamese man with uncontrollable diabetes, hypertension and chronic asthma; although he has tried on several occasions to do light manual labor, he has sometimes lost consciousness, further jeopardizing his health. Eight years ago, he earned good money at an automotive repair shop; today he simply cannot work.  His wife is six years his senior, has no employable skills and is unable to speak Khmer.  Together, they are in custody of their two grandchildren, both girls, ages four and nine.  Following a family dispute, they no longer maintain contact with their son, also a refugee, living in Cambodia though struggling with alcoholism.  Cambodia does not have a social welfare system for citizens, let alone foreigners; the de facto social welfare system for the aged and infirm is to rely on relatives and extended family.  This refugee Vietnamese family is faced with a desperate situation:  “We have no one but each other.  I cannot work; my wife cannot work; our girls cannot work.  What do we do?”

Bilal is a 50-year-old Somali refugee. He suffers from chronic, severe schizophrenia with frequent violent outbursts.  In Cambodia, where the mental health system is inadequate and ill-equipped to meet the needs of the most serious patients, Bilal lives his life roaming the streets of Phnom Penh, cursing at tourists enjoying a stroll along the riverside boardwalk.  Homeless, he is not under the care of any mental health service provider, does not take medication, and is unable to work.  In desperation, he shouts, “I will fucking die here unless they send me back to Somalia!”

  1. Child laborers.  Despite the fact that Cambodia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, child labor remains prevalent throughout the country.  According to the Child Labor Survey 2012, the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that 1 out of every 10 children in the country is forced to work in a way that violates Cambodian laws or international conventions.  Like their Cambodian peers, refugee children under the age of 17 are often forced to work instead of attend school.  Often, children who are engaged in the informal labor sector are exposed to dangerous conditions, physical and sexual abuse, crime, gang-related violence, and additional forms of exploitation and neglect, including the risk of trafficking.  Ahmad pays for his 12-year-old son to attend Arabic school one day per week; the rest of the time, the boy is expected to work:  “Why should I send my son to a Cambodian school?  He is not Cambodian!”

Hien, an 11-year-old child of Vietnamese origin, is not permitted to attend school because in the past he was severely bullied by his peers.  Moreover, the parents do not want the child to learn the Khmer language even though they have no intention of ever returning to their homeland:  “I do not want my son to become Cambodian.”  Admittedly the parents have provided their son with some limited home-schooling, yet he is still expected to work next to his father in the grueling logging industry.  Hien admits, “I tried going to school but I didn’t like it.  It is better for me to work to help my mother and father.”

  1. Self-employed economic actors.  Far and away the most popular means of income generation amongst Cambodia’s urban refugee population is self-employment.  Most refugees prefer to operate their own small business rather than seek employment under contract.  Of the many possibilities seemingly available for business ventures, most of Cambodia’s urban refugees pursue one of three services:  a) selling fish; b) mending clothes; and c) selling roti bread. The attractions of the informal labor sector are many:  an individual can work independently, set one’s own schedule and have the satisfaction of pursuing a livelihood according to her own needs and desires.

Nevertheless, informal labor is not without its perils. Few of Cambodia’s urban refugees are natural-born entrepreneurs. Indeed, most seem to have rather poor intuition for business success, lacking in particular skills to thrive at finance, management and customer service.  As foreigners, it is often difficult to attract native Cambodian customers in a limited and competitive market.  Many Cambodians seem to self-select their compatriots when given a choice and many refugees lose business to competitors who possess food carts that are more attractive and aesthetically appealing than the often second-hand, rickety materials in use by refugees.  Whereas all business owners are subject to police grafts and dubious local street “taxes,” a discrepancy seems to exist by which refugees are taxed at a higher rate, often at such levels that their monthly profit margin is reduced by over half.  Additionally, many refugee small business owners are forced to provide products or services at no cost to police and other government personnel. Refugees report harassment, ridicule, threats, attacks by groups of drunken youth, and vandalism. The instability of local markets forces many refugees to relocate their businesses and, necessarily, their homes thereby adding to the challenges of integrating into a secure community.  Few self-employed refugees are able to break out of the confines of a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence.  Consequently, few refugees are able to save money in order to safeguard adequately against adverse contingency events, such as illness, accident or loss.  Savings is fundamental to self-reliance, yet most refugees lack knowledge and understanding about this important security mechanism.

A 69-year-old Pakistani woman, Surayya, who used to operate her own tea shop, was robbed one evening at the market as she was shopping for her next day’s supplies.  Refugees are effectively forced to work in a cash economy:  at the end of 2013, not a single refugee living in Cambodia had a bank account.  Surayya was carrying all of her money with her at the time of the theft; her age and stature made her an optimal target for pickpockets. The total loss of all of her cash money meant not only the collapse of her business, but an emergency situation for her and her dependent grandson.  Hopeless, Surayya cries, “What am I to do?  Everything I had, I lost.  Now, I must sell my business materials – tables, chairs, ice box – in order to buy food to eat.  But what will I do when even these are gone?”

It is, no doubt, an extreme hardship for a refugee to start a business, let alone re-start a business after an unfavorable event.  Few refugees arrive in Cambodia with sufficient capital to purchase base materials to commence a business venture.  Therefore, most look to others – neighbors and acquaintances – in hopes of borrowing money.  Such practice places them in debt. Given their insufficient earnings, many refugees are never able to escape the debt bond.  Currently, it does not seem possible for refugees in Cambodia to procure a loan from a Microfinance Institution (MFI) or bank:  refugees lack the requisite documentation, generally have no credit history, no collateral, no formal or consistent income, and they are typically unable to provide the names of references or guarantors.   There is simply no bank that will comfortably lend to such a high risk patron.  Moreover, in a Buddhist nation like Cambodia, Shariah compliant finance is lacking for Muslim refugees.

It is also extremely difficult for refugees to maintain a business.  The reality is that informal labor is irregular labor. The work of a street vendor, for instance, is not steady. Sales fluctuate based on any number of contingencies, from environmental changes (Ho Minh was surprised to find his sales of sugar cane juice drop by over 60% during the so-called “cool-dry season”) to public school vacations (Sayed’s primary market for his roti business is school children – his business plummets during school holidays) to more personal issues like sickness and religious holidays (in 2013, every roti vendor reported a sharp decline in sales during the holy month of Ramadan). Given the difficulty most refugees have saving money, this inconsistency in profit from a small business adds to the general hardship of achieving the end-goal of self-reliance.


In truth, the seven categories into which economic actors amongst Cambodia’s urban refugee population fall are hardly surprising.  While the challenges inherent in each of these categories are, perhaps, somewhat predictable, those unique barriers which hamper the urban refugee’s pursuit of economic empowerment are still under-acknowledged and largely overlooked.  Limited Khmer language skills for Phuong Tran, the negative influence of xenophobia tainting Aung Min’s pursuit of employment, and the more personal distress of someone like Zubaida, who, for cultural reasons, is severely limited in her ability to channel her potential – these are some of the particular ordeals faced by urban refugees in Cambodia.  And they are by no means small or insignificant. Yet, given Cambodia’s participation in certain international protocols surrounding the rights of refugees, in addition to its own domestic legislation and the recent implementation of the Refugee Office, the challenges of urban refugees living in Cambodia with regards to economic empowerment are not incomparable to those challenges faced by the broader population of economic migrants.  In fact, given the protections accorded by the law, the argument could be made that refugees fare somewhat better even than certain economic migrants who may or may not have legal resident status, the legal right to work, or the backing of international and local agencies to champion their interests and entitlements.

Hagar International, for example, had been working closely with the UNHCR to develop two initiatives aimed to enhance the pursuit of economic empowerment by urban refugees living in Cambodia.  Firstly, Hagar pioneered a “limited strategic intervention” project:  Hagar vowed to make limited financial interventions to assist refugee clients who approach the organization with credible need-based requests.  These interventions are intended to catalyze clients towards self-reliance.  Limited strategic interventions imply:

  1. The financial support Hagar offers to clients will be limited in terms of the amount of money Hagar will distribute to any given client at any one time. Anjana, a 37-year-old Sri Lankan male, has been living in Cambodia for over nine years.  Previously, he had been subsisting on UNHCR’s MFA.  He was isolated, suffered from major depressive disorder and lacked the motivation to pursue self-reliance.  Hagar admitted Anjana as a client in their case management and economic empowerment program.  Hagar provided him with both career and mental health counseling.  Having formed a trusting relationship with the client, Hagar offered him financial assistance in the amount of $100 USD to attend a vocational training program through a partner NGO, so that by his own choosing he could learn bakery skills.  Additionally, Hagar supported Anjana with a one-time grant in the amount of $90 USD, so that prior to his first day of training he could purchase two sets of new clothes, a pair of new shoes, hygiene supplies, a haircut, and a second-hand bicycle for transportation.  Furthermore, Hagar provided Anjana $40 USD per month for two months as incentive to remain in the program and to cover miscellaneous expenses, such as a portion of monthly food and rent.  Hagar’s Employment Services Officer monitored the client’s training progress, and assisted the client in identifying an appropriate job placement upon his successful completion of his certificate program.  For $270 USD, Hagar jump-started this man’s life from one of ennui and melancholia, to one where he can now take pride in his achievements and inaugurate the possibility of earning income for the first time in a decade.

  1. The financial support Hagar offers to clients will be strategic:  small contributions will yield big results.  James is a Burmese refugee who had been operating a roti cart for almost two years.  The father of one young boy, James also has to provide for his physically disabled wife and his elderly mother-in-law.  Hagar met with James and did a small-scale livelihood assessment.  James’ business was found to be limited by the fact that he sold only one product:  customers had the limited choice of plain roti, roti with fish or roti with egg.  For $40 USD, however, Hagar was able to help James purchase an icebox, so that he could sell cold drinks together with roti.  This strategic investment enabled James to almost double his profits overnight, making a significant impact on his family’s financial security.

  2. The financial support Hagar offers to clients will consist of interventions that the clients themselves may otherwise have difficulty accomplishing on their own in the Cambodian context.  Kim-Ly and her husband sell fish in one of Cambodia’s central provinces along the Mekong River.  One day, they sold their old, broken motorbike in order to purchase a second-hand motorbike, which they need to transport their fish. Not understanding the local laws and falling prey to a seller who took advantage of her naiveté, Kim-Ly purchased a less expensive motorbike that was not pre-licensed. To her credit, Kim-Ly tried to complete a somewhat challenging transaction on her own. Unfortunately, to operate her vehicle legally, and to avoid harassment by the Cambodian police who sometimes target minority groups like the Vietnamese to extort bribes, Kim-Ly needed to procure a valid registration for her motorbike.  Hagar was able to intervene by taking her to the Ministry of Transportation, advocating for her right to a valid motor vehicle registration and paying $90 USD for the cost of the processing.  This intervention helped the client recommence her business with minimal interruption.

Secondly, Hagar executed an asset mapping exercise of existing organizations and agencies throughout Phnom Penh that may be willing to avail their services to refugees and asylum seekers.  The asset mapping procedure involved first identifying certain sectors within civil society in which refugees, particularly those who are newly arrived, would likely require support.  To this end, Hagar identified six key sectors:  i) Key Stakeholders; ii) Education and Vocational Training; iii) Employment Services; iv) Legal Services; v) Recreation; and vi) Healthcare and Mental Health. Next, Hagar vetted over 60 organizations, educating managers and decision-makers about the lawful presence of refugees in Cambodia, introducing the unique needs of the target population, and brainstorming ways in which each organization could possibly make a positive impact on individuals seeking support.  Finally, Hagar compiled a list of 29 organizations which expressed a willingness to consider refugee clients on a case-by-case basis.  These organizations were listed in a Service Directory brochure to be distributed to all refugees already living in Cambodia, as well as to all new arrivals.

The two sections of the brochure most apropos to this paper are those which list vocational training providers and employment services.  For example, a refugee who wants to learn hairstyling can go to the brochure and find two different organizations offering such training.  The refugee could contact the organization, explain their refugee status and that they were referred by Hagar, and hopefully receive a favorable response to their inquiry.  Likewise, a refugee seeking a job in the food and beverage industry would be able to find two Hagar-affiliated employers, in addition to contact information for the National Employment Agency.  It is made clear to users that there is no guarantee any given service will be provided and that certain services may carry a fee.  The express purpose of the directory is to empower individuals with a vetted pool of resources that they can independently approach.

No Work and No Play Makes Jack Not-Jack

With organizations like Hagar International and the advent of programs like their “limited strategic interventions” initiative and asset mapping service directory, there is reason to think optimistically about the future for refugees in Cambodia. The fact that Hagar works closely with partner organizations, including the UNHCR, the Refugee Office of the Cambodian Government and other local NGOs, as well as the refugee beneficiaries themselves, means that a growing network of stakeholders is collaborating to promote awareness, understanding and sensitization around the mutual benefits for refugees and their host society in welcoming refugees into local communities.  And yet, self-reliance remains an unreachable aspiration for most refugees.  Why?  Perhaps the problem has less to do with the inherent challenges refugees face when navigating an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile system than with the broken architecture that accounts for the system itself.

In a recent lecture on Marx and Engels’ “The Communist Manifesto” for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, Michael Hardt starkly identified, “One of the reasons our society sucks is that people can’t – aren’t able to do what they’re able to do.  They’re blocked from doing.” This blockage, this obstruction to the very basic act of doing is an affront to precisely that which Hannah Arendt says defines the human condition:  “the capacity of beginning something new, that is, of acting.” The human actor in today’s world is blocked from acting, from doing.  No doubt, she is capable of doing something, quite probably doing much more than something.  The potentiality of any one of us is great.  Yet, she cannot achieve her potential.  She cannot do it, whatever ‘it’ may be.  She is blocked from doing.  And that which blocks her is not herself – it is the world.  Wordsworth’s prophetic sonnet rings true: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

It is beyond the scope of the present paper to critique the forces at work in the modern world, those forces which contribute to the subjugation and impotence of the individual actor: the takeover by neoliberal capitalism of the world’s economy with its sanctification of the free market; the tax havens sheltering multinational corporations, which amount to over $900 billion USD each year in tax avoidance; the fact that 85 of the richest people own the wealth of half the world’s population; and the political-economic complicity of the wealthiest Western nations which have helped install some of the most corrupt, authoritarian regimes the world over.  What is clear is that despite the misinformed fabrications of certain right-wing hucksters, the plight of the poor can no longer be blamed on the poor.  As Arendt presciently hypothesized half-a-century ago in her critique of Marx, “world alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx had thought, has been the hall-mark of the modern age.”  The individual actor is alienated from the world such that she cannot do what she is able to do in the world, namely, she cannot lead a happy and fulfilled life.  The pejorative “average Josephine” cannot achieve self-reliance for the very fact that the world blocks herself from herself.


This rather dystopian account of world alienation sets a bleak outlook for the future.  A man, after all, cannot live on roti alone.

The refugee, however, is undeterred. For, it is precisely when faced with abjection that the refugee proves her- or him- self most capable.  And so, it is to the figure of refugee that we turn for hope in the midst of universal despair.

In doing so, let us heed Gayatri Spivak’s critique of “the intellectual within socialized capital” who helps “consolidate the international division of labor” through “an essentialist agenda.” In her celebrated essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak shines damning light on the position within the intellectual and economic history of the West from which certain thinkers – here, she selects Deleuze and Foucault, though certainly countless others have proven culpable – ultimately craft or “inaugurate a Subject” which the theoretician represents. Spivak cautions that this all too common maneuver renders “‘Asia’…transparent.”  As we conclude this essay, we shall take pains not to glorify the position of the refugee in society, acknowledging that from our vantage we can neither feel what it is like to be a refugee nor can we in good conscience compare the experience of non-refugees to refugees.  This tactic is true, of course, only up to the not uncontroversial point where, once again, the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ has changed.

The refugee is a survivor.  Having faced persecution in her homeland for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion; having escaped war, wrongful imprisonment, forced separation from family, harassment, intimidation, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, and torture; and having fled to a country that is outside the country of her nationality (if she even has a nationality!), unable or unwilling to avail herself of the protection of that country, the refugee arrives in a host country a survivor. Notwithstanding the physical, mental and spiritual trauma of forced displacement, of losing one’s home and homeland, of witnessing friends and relatives killed, of facing a future that is characterized by uncertainty as much as fear, the refugee relies on a combination of an innate human insistence to persevere and an extra-human hope in tomorrow.  These are the tools that enable her to endure unbearable suffering, to prevail against evil and to survive against all odds.  In the face of the impossible, the refugee is resilient.  The refugee is a survivor.

Recently, several researchers have suggested reasons how “urban refugees are a good example of a potential win-win situation for both host countries and refugees.”  Examples of how urban refugees can be an asset rather than a burden on the host society include the suggestion that “many urban refugees are entrepreneurs” or the possibility that “increases in refugees’ income may lead to increases in local populations’ income through forward and backward business relations (i.e. refugees become customers of, or sellers to, local businesses).” All this may be true.  However, what commentators fail to recognize is quite possibly refugees’ greatest contribution to their host society in the form of a much more basic and vitally human lesson:  refugees bring to their host society an example of how to survive in a world that is fundamentally inhospitable.

Survival means doing or acting even when one is blocked from doing.  In the city, particularly those overcrowded, under-serviced, under-resourced cities in the global South where large swathes of the population subsist in abject poverty (though today, every city is plagued by a nefarious wealth gap), the poor (and not only the poor but the so-called middle class) struggle to meet basic needs of adequate shelter, nutrition and healthcare. Despite advances in technology, improved infrastructure and the appearance of universal wealth, it is becoming more and more difficult to survive in the city.  Archetypal city walls have failed to interrupt ingress and egress; “the nation-state’s presumed homogeneity and territorial rootedness” have been compromised. Instead, the corporate towers of Babylon have emerged, forcing every rational actor into a submissive checkmate.  In the city, the economic actor is persecuted, not (only) for reasons of race, religion, etc., etc., but for attempting to exercise her basic human right of doing what she is able to do.


Hannah Arendt offers the following definition: “Society is the form in which the fact of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance and where the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public.” Let us examine briefly each of this definition’s two parts.

First, Arendt suggests that society requires people coming together in “mutual dependence for the sake of life.”  Only through the experience of sharing a common human world with others is it possible for society to flourish.  Arendt understands that the post-WWII world is anything but homogenous, a fact grounded not only in the Jewish diaspora, but a widespread intermingling of different races, nationalities, languages and ideas brought about in large by technology: transportation, communications, media and, among other things, war.  Hence, sharing a common human world means sharing it with others who look at it from different perspectives.  Only then can we “begin to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.”  This common sense informs Arendt’s notion of mutual dependence for the sake of life.  And this mutual dependence forms the backbone of society.  Though Arendt does not speak of it as such, one should notice that self-reliance as we have defined it assumes mutual dependence.

Second, Arendt invokes the concept of vita activa.  She links the collective activities performed by individual actors in society with “sheer survival.”  To act, Arendt reminds us, “means to take an initiative, to begin…to set something into motion.” The most fundamental trait of the human condition, acting, undergirds her concept of natality, “the action [a person is] capable of by virtue of being born.” Should the newborn survive, Arendt continues, “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something new, that is, of acting.” To be born, to live, to survive:  for Arendt, all this is at stake in what it means to act.  Moreover, all this is at stake in the lifeblood of society.

But, lest we forget even for a second, society “sucks.” It sucks because all this activity that is necessary for both mutual dependence and sheer survival has been blocked, which is why we need to reactivate it. Which, in turn, is why natality is so essential a concept in Arendt’s thinking:  “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.  This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins.”  Unimaginable human potential springs from natality!  Yet, contrary to Arendt’s vision, in the modern world, the natality of one does not seem to be injecting society with the life force it needs to reactivate itself for the sake of the collective whole.  Where is the “startling unexpectedness” one might expect to find in the center of a bustling metropolis?  In the modern city, there is no beginning and there is only the semblance of vita activa.  Individual actors are stuck – stuck dying with no prospect for rebirth.

That is, all save the refugee.  Unlike other inhabitants of modern society, the refugee signals natality, for the refugee has died and so is aptly positioned for a new beginning.  In the ashes of a village burned to the ground, the refugee has died.  In the houses of worship profaned by sacrilege, the refugee has died.  In the mass graves where loved ones lie desecrated, the refugee has died.  In abandoned dreams and recurrent nightmares, the refugee has died and will die again and again.  Yes, the refugee has died.  But the refugee has also been reborn.  She is thrown (geworfen) into a new world.  Into a new world she has survived and is born again. On the threshold of the host society, the refugee arrives reborn.  She need not act; she has already acted.  She has arrived:  “the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something new, that is, of acting.” The refugee has arrived; something new has begun; acting:

The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him,
that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable.  And this again is possible only because
each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.
With respect to this somebody who is unique it can be truly said that nobody was there

The refugee is the newcomer, the new arrival, unique, the one before whom there was none other, who, by virtue of her new beginning exemplifies the vita activa, “capable of action…able to perform what is infinitely improbable.”  The refugee unblocks that which impeded others from acting, freeing herself and her comrades in the city so that all may begin acting again.  The refugee is the one who by acting is capable of constructing an environment in which intersections of possibilities transform shared space into a livable world.


Once again, the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ has changed.  Re-working Agamben, let us conclude with the suggestion that the refugee is the sole category in which it is possible today to perceive the forms and limits of a political-economic community to come.  We see this in the phenomenology of roti.  The general case study put forth of urban refugees in Cambodia underscores the challenges of economic empowerment faced by resident outsiders in a host society within the developing world.  Nevertheless, despite certain stumbling blocks specific to the refugee experience, the refugee shares with other economic actors the struggle to survive in the midst of a society where doers are blocked from doing.  Of her comrades in the city, the refugee is unique in that she is reborn into a new world.  Accordingly, she has already acted, she has demonstrated her capacity for beginning something new.  The refugee performs and embodies this new beginning; thus, she is exemplary in society for catalyzing life according to our most fundamental human condition.  The refugee underscores the resilience of local communities.  The refugee has survived and will continue to survive.

Finding the refugee among us in society, we come to identify our own exclusion from society.  We learn to recognize the forces which block us from doing what we are able to do.  And we see that persecution succeeds only if we allow it to impinge upon our sense of identity.

Let us heed the refugees’ call:  “we refugees, the vanguard of the city!”


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Mick Headshot - AS Photoshoot Fall 2016

Mick Hirsch is a writer, researcher and advocate for refugees and migrants. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale University, he has also studied at the Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma and the European Graduate School. He has worked in refugee resettlement both in the United States and Cambodia, where he also served as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, teaching trauma recovery. Mick has been an invited speaker to the First Global Forum on Statelessness in The Hague, the Asia Pacific Sociological Association and Duke University, among others. He is the founder of “Radical Itinerant,” a movement of unconditional hospitality:


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